“I don’t like to scare people,” says microbiologist Paul Keim. “But the worst-case scenarios here are just enormous.”
Keim, who chairs the US National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB), is reflecting on its unprecedented recommendation to censor two scientific papers describing how to make a more transmissible form of the H5N1 avian flu virus. On December 20, the board said that although the general conclusions could be published, the papers (currently under review at Nature and Science) should not include “the methodological and other details that could enable replication of the experiments by those who would seek to do harm”.
That advice has brought the NSABB flak from all sides. Although the board has said that selected researchers should have access to the full details of the work, some scientists have accused it of trying to curtail academic communication, and suggest that partial publication could hamper research intended to help to defend humans against a flu pandemic. Others complain, however, that the NSABB has done too little, too late, to protect the world from a potentially dangerous man-made pathogen.
Perhaps most worryingly, some argue that the NSABB—a purely advisory body—is not equipped to oversee research that could pose a biosecurity threat. “The NSABB was set up not to do anything,” says John Steinbruner, a security expert at the University of Maryland in College Park. “It is just a way of pretending there is some kind of oversight when there isn’t.”
The roots of the NSABB go back to the 2001 anthrax attacks in the United States, when letters laced with the pathogen killed five people and infected more than a dozen others. The attacks prompted calls to limit the publication of scientific research that terrorists could use to design biological weapons. Scientists in turn feared that the government would step in to regulate sensitive work. “There was a sense, whether right or wrong, that if the community did not act to protect the integrity of science, government would overreach and there would be censorship,” recalls Ronald Atlas, a microbiologist at the University of Louisville in Kentucky, who at the time was president-elect of the American Society for Microbiology. That society was one of many that pushed for a system in which researchers would regulate themselves, with the help of an advisory board made up of scientists. The US government agreed, and the NSABB was born in 2004.
“We’re being accused of being the bad guys,” says Keim, based at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. “But most of what we’ve done is to push back against harsher regulations.” Since its inception, Keim says that the NSABB has only been asked to review six papers, including two in 2005 that described the reconstruction of the 1918 influenza virus that is thought to have killed more than 20 million people. In that case, the board recommended that the papers simply be amended to spell out the public-health benefits of the research.
But the stakes are higher for the H5N1 work, because the altered viruses readily spread between laboratory ferrets breathing the same air. If the same were true in humans, the new strains could combine H5N1’s high death rate — much higher than the 1918 flu—with seasonal flu’s rapid transmission (see Nature 480, 421–422; 2011). Add in uncertainties about the efficacy and availability of vaccines and drugs to combat the virus, and the risk of misuse becomes more frightening than any other case that the board has considered, says NSABB member Kenneth Berns, a microbiologist at the University of Florida in Gainesville.
The editors-in-chief of Nature and Science have both acknowledged the NSABB’s concerns, but say that they are reserving judgement about whether to censor the papers until the US government provides details of how it will allow genuine researchers to obtain redacted information.